England go back to the future

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They are no strangers to rewriting history in China, but this week they may feel the English have been indulging in the practice. Some of the mementoes the Football Association will present to mark tomorrow's historic first match between the countries may feature the Euro 96 slogan "Football Comes Home". It is a claim the the hosts could disagree with.

While the formation of the FA in 1863 signalled the beginning of the modern game, the earliest footballers were probably Chinese. References to a similar sport were made during the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago.

Thus there is a certain aptness in England warming up for their biggest tournament in 30 years with a debut visit to China, even if not everyone in England is convinced of its value.

There are no doubters in China. The visit is badly needed. They may have been playing football while England were still under Roman rule, but they have not progressed very far. They have never qualified for a World Cup and their sponsored, nationwide, professional league is only in its third season.

However, as elsewhere in China, change is happening quickly. Most top division clubs will gross pounds 1m in gate receipts this season - remarkable in a country with such low salaries; several have attracted foreign sponsors, players or coaches; and the first six-figure transfer fee is imminent.

There is an intensive effort to attract international opponents, with England's visit being the highlight of a 1996 guest list which includes Uruguay and France. Colombia have already been beaten, but the recent failure of the Olympic side to qualify for the Atlanta Games was a blow.

Unlike in many Asian countries, children can be seen playing the game even in Tiananmen Square, one of the few open spaces in central Peking. However, unlike their African and European equivalents, they do not appear to be very skilled. Satellite television has also made an impact - shirts of Milan, Juventus and Ajax have been seen.

"Asia will be the next power in world football," Terry Venables, the England coach, said. "The next World Cup will be there [Fifa, the game's world governing body, decides on 1 June between Japan and South Korea] and we need to find out about it."

So far, Venables has found out that, for all the enthusiasm and investment, there is some way to go in terms of preparing pitches. The Workers' Stadium pitch has been passed fit for tomorrow's game, but it is clear that, if Venables had not visited and then sent Ted Buxton out to oversee improvements, it would not have been.

It is still poor by international standards, but better than several lower division English grounds were by the season's end. "It is," said David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman who is here as a member of the FA's international committee, "50 per cent better than when we were here last year. Then there were stones and holes all over the place."

David Seaman, who broke his ankle on the surface last year, was less effusive. "There is not much difference," he said. "It's greener but still bobbly. I can see where I went down last year. I played the ball, my foot stuck in a divot and that was it.

"The players are OK with it. It's no use saying it's a bad pitch, you have to get on with it. I have played on worse - two seasons ago in Nicosia for example."

Seaman is unlikely to play as Venables said he is going to "make some changes to see what some players can do and give them some experience". That could mean a first start for Ian Walker and Sol Campbell, and a debut for Phil Neville. Venables is unlikely to overdo the experimenting at the back.

He already has to replace Mark Wright and is facing a side which he expects to be quick in attack but shaky in defence. Venables only found out that Wright was definitely out of Euro 96 from the press; due to the time difference, he had not been able to return a call from Liverpool.

The 32-year-old defender's medial knee-ligament injury, suffered in Saturday's 3-0 Wembley victory over Hungary, will not heal in time for him to continue his England renaissance. A broken leg kept Wright out of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and an Achilles tendon problem prevented him playing in the European Championship finals four years ago.

"I'm beginning to think there's some kind of jinx on me where major cup competitions are concerned," said Wright, who has been ordered to have complete rest for a month.

Venables was consoled by the discovery in training earlier that both Steve Howey and Tony Adams seemed fit. One of them will probably play tomorrow.

Steve Stone has recovered from his hamstring strain, leaving only Les Ferdinand as a doubt - he has sprained his wrist. With the temperature at 90F, England are not overdoing the training. Today they have a light session in the morning followed by a visit to the Great Wall. It could be a chance to test their free-kick routines.

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